Provocation, Politics, and the Messiah of the 99%


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

You’re usually never far from the next outrage concerning a Call of Duty game. Fast becoming the Twilight of the videogame community, the very mention of the name is likely to spark furious debate, while admitting that you still enjoy the series can incur excommunication from social circles. The latest kerfuffle was introduced by way of a new trailer for the game, revealing Black Ops II’s principal antagonist, Raul Menendez. While Treyarch has been promising that we’ll get a deep and interesting villain with compelling motivations, right now there’s concern about his status as established in the game’s fictional alternate universe — as the so-called “messiah of the 99%.”

Now, most of you reading will know what connotations “99%” carries. It refers to those who make up the vast majority of the North American public who are suffering as a result of actions committed by a very tiny majority. “We are the 99%” was the battle cry of the Occupy Movement, the movement that wanted to hold accountable those who helped break the economy and made out like bandits while the working classes bore the brunt of the fallout. Now whether you agree or disagree with the movement, its beliefs, or any of the ideas propagated in the debate is neither here nor there. What matters is that Menendez’s association with the 99%, the portrayal of a villain who is idolized by those borne from the same pool as the Occupy Movement is, without a shadow of a doubt, something that looks incredibly politically motivated. The reactions to this easily perceived motivation are already drenching the Internet.

The cynical among us would see Call of Duty’s association with the corporate powerhouse that is Activision and feel a little suspicious about a game that seemingly portrays the downtrodden working class as gullible idiots led by evil men who will destroy society. Whether earnestly or facetiously, the connection can easily be made between Activision and the message that Occupy is stupid and potentially dangerous.

One need look no further than Gameranx and its comments page to see the negative responses. Writer Ian Miles Chong was among the first to point out writer David Goyer’s seeming enjoyment of pitting heroes against the manipulator of common working folk (Goyer also co-wrote The Dark Knight Rises, which casts Bane in a similar role). While Chong remained somewhat impartial in his writing, the commentary that followed was definitely more flavorful.

“Fuck this game,” wrote Marx Drawing Song.

“Cool, really nice how pop culture is being co-opted and used for government & corporate propaganda. Fuck that guy,” declared the charmingly styled Piss Fail Idiot.

Graham Sutherland added something a bit more eloquent: “I wondered how long it’d take before a company with large intellectual property holdings produced a piece of anti-Assange / anti-Anonymous / anti-Occupy propaganda that made it to mainstream media. What I didn’t expect was that it’d be so blatant. Do yourselves a favor — support the indie developers, and don’t even bother with this malevolent garbage.”

There were plenty of comments coming out in favor of the game, or at least laughing at other commenters for being “butthurt” over the content of the trailer. Some complained that left-wing propaganda is just fine while anything right-wing must be scrutinized. In any case, amid the debate and trolling, there were a few seemingly sincere proposals that the game not be purchased. Some even wanted to hack or pirate the game in protest.

Whatever side you fall on, this is a fascinating look at how the content of a game’s premise and narrative is starting to be considered with equal weight alongside the more tangible, technical aspects. Time was, a game’s story and writing really didn’t matter. You bought a game, and it was judged purely on its fun factor. Did its controls work? Were its graphics matching the standard of the time? How glitchy was it? Unlike with comic books, movies, and novels, nobody asked how complex the characters were, whether the story made sense, and how cynical the motivations of the writers were. These are the kinds of discussions that excite me, because they showcase games as more than products. While there are still plenty of pundits who adopt the, “Who cares? It’s just a game,” approach (after all, it’s an intellectually safe attitude), there are increasing numbers who want to judge games based on deeper, more emotionally engaging criteria.

Looking at something like this, I have to ask the question — when I review it, do I take the potentially offensive message into account? Is that a “thing” I should do now? If I find the game cynically written, politically motivated, or espousing a message that I find off-base, uninformed, offensive or even potentially dangerous, is that crucial enough to the enjoyment of an interactive experience that it deserves to be counted? Do we, as gamers, need to start thinking about the motives, the messages, and the purposes of games outside of simply existing to be fun?

Certainly, a movie or a book with an offensive message is going to impact the enjoyment of the offended party. A comedy movie full of rape jokes, for example, is not going to be reviewed too favorably by a critic who takes gender politics very seriously and believes that the issue of rape is no laughing matter. A book that seems to carry a racist message in its story is likely to be mauled in the press by anyone who, well, isn’t a damn racist. Likewise, a game reviewer with a more liberal political leaning may find a (hypothetical) game that paints the Occupy Movement as a bunch of gullible morons offensive to the point that they stop having fun.

For a case in point, when I reviewed Duke Nukem Forever for Destructoid, I called particular attention to the level in which women were captured and forcibly impregnated by aliens. Though the concept was ludicrous and full of Aliens pastiche, the grimly dark, torturous way in which these “impregnations” took place bore a strongly thematic resemblance to rape. Even worse, the unfunny and frankly disturbing imagery was married to Jon St. Jon’s callously dispassionate quips as he was invited to kill each of these women. As creatures violently raped these women, we’d have Duke telling them that they’re “fucked” in a way that wasn’t silly enough to be considered satirical, and really did look like the entire joke was , “haha rape.” Not since The Last House on the Left have I felt like a piece of entertainment was simultaneously sociopathic and awkwardly “comedic” in a way that made my skin crawl.

Now, this level was FAR from the only bad thing in that game, and certainly was a mere portion of my overall assessment. However, I felt it was worth considering alongside the ugly graphics and insipid gameplay because it added an extra level of emotional disgust on top of the general misery that everything else had inflicted upon me. For everything else Duke Nukem Forever did wrong, that added level of disturbance was an important point to bring up, and compounded the lack of enjoyment I was having.

Of course, this argument throws up an opposite debating point — does this not send the message that there are certain subjects games cannot talk about without risking punishment? Is that not the opposite of what I want to see? Certainly, I’ve railed against Nintendo’s decision to exclude The Binding of Isaac from the 3DS eShop on this very site, and I stand by that. But I’d rail against the exclusion of a pro-Christian title at the same time, because I think no topic should be off limits to a videogame, just because it is a videogame. The Left Behind games are pathetic and outrageous in my opinion, but if Texas Walmarts want to sell them, that’s fine. At the same time, however, we ought to be conscious that the topics we choose to address do bring consequences for the audience, and while some may enjoy what’s being said, there are always some who will be offended. I don’t think games are quite ready to reach that stage of acceptance yet (we still need to get past this new idea that sending death threats to each other is a good way to have a disagreement) but it’s interesting to see the feelers extending evermore further into that territory.

For all of its criticism as a brainless glorification of militancy, the Call of Duty series has been notable for some pretty daring narrative and deserves a lot more credit than it gets these days for using its mainstream position as a way to push the envelope for all games. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare popularized the alienating “pilot gunner” level in which the player was disconnected from combat and firing shells on humans that were represented as little more than heat traces. Many found it profoundly alarming in how desensitizing and thoughtless such combat felt. It would further provoke gamers with that famous “nuke” sequence in which the player survives an atomic blast, only to wander through the wreckage and succumb to fatal wounds. Modern Warfare 2 would go even further with the notorious “No Russian” level that placed players on the antagonizing side of a terror attack and, for all the outrage it garnered, I still respect that Infinity Ward was prepared to put something like that out while other publishers scrabble for censorship and try not to rock the boat too hard.

That’s why, whatever happens with the character of Menendez and his 99%, I will at least appreciate Treyarch’s willingness to bring it up, moreso for the fact that it makes us talk, and debate, and think, than anything else. It may be cynical, it may even promote a message that I personally find offensive, but at the very least it will provoke me in a way that most videogames simply don’t. I ultimately think that’s a good thing, and the kind of tiny, subtle step that makes games a more interesting and thoughtful medium to engage with. When reviewing it, I’ll have to think about more than the usual bullet points. I’ll have to think about what it says to me just as much as what it tells my brain to tell my hands.

Message or not, offensive or not, worthy of purchase or deserving of boycott, games that reach into us and make us feel a strong reaction in some way are ultimately contributing to something that, one day, could be truly wonderful.

That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyway.

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11 Comments on Provocation, Politics, and the Messiah of the 99%

idealrobot

On July 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Well written.

I’ve never been a fan of CoD, or any particular FPS, mostly because of the boring gameplay, but also because of these very odd social undercurrents. Why is it that the player is killing droves people from other nations outside of America in most of these games? If there was a game made from another country, where killing the US army, or US combatants, I’m sure that there would be quite an uproar.

Beyond that, while I appreciate the stance taken in this article, I find myself hard pressed to agree with something like this at all. In a time when the US unemployment rate is 10%, and banks are actually being handed nations, when people living in what we call the “third world” are fighting and dying for freedom from their oppressors; a company comes out with a game that positions a political movement, that has heralded itself as a voice of the common person, fighting against societal corruption, as being in support of a villain? On top of this, they want people who potentially can see exactly how the 99% reflects real life, to give what money they have in order to reward this sort of thinking?

I for one can’t claim to be neutral here. I truly appreciate the optimism stated here, but what I’m most looking forward to out of this, is the potential of people recognizing where these companies stand, and what the cost of entertainment actually is. Though I’m sure Activision is smart enough to change their tune, I hope people won’t forget where they once stood. I certainly won’t.

On the note of the Dark Knight though: Batman has always been a plutocrat, but hopefully Goyer wasn’t dumb enough to actually write the film where this game is headed.

idealrobot

On July 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Forgive the grammar, I write too quickly at times.

Daniel O'Dette

On July 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I think a lot of us are seeing this in the wrong way. Let me make myself clear though-I do not agree with the Occupy movement. I believe that, while there will always be problems with the Capitalistic system, it is far superior than the Socialist/Communist governmental and economic systems, which have time and time again failed.

So, let’s start with the idea of gullibility. Raul Menendez has been described by the game developers as a sociopath, someone who is uniquely skilled at manipulating others into doing his bidding, whether or not they are aware of the true intentions of their leader. They have existed as long as there have been humans, well before characters like Adolf Hitler (and even Julius Caesar) existed. Is it not good that the “99%” has fallen for the man? Yes, as it will cause the events of the game through their unknowing support. But should they be blamed and/or ridiculed because of it? No, they shouldn’t. They would have fallen for the wiles of a person who is criminally insane and able to manipulate people extremely easily and efficiently.

Secondly, I agree with the writer’s comments that people will react to something towards their opinions and beliefs. There is nothing we really can do about that, and to change that would be a far worse crime than anything a video game character (and a video game character only, not figures from history) can commit. We simply lay the evidence before them and let them choose. The idea that this is an attack on a political movement is a irrational lashing out towards something that has yet to be fully developed and laid out for the gamers and reviewers. One cannot make an opinion on a thinly-explained trailer (which took me about three times to understand that the man who, in my mind, resembled an older Alex Mason, was actually Raul) which explains nothing other than he had been manipulating the disgruntled for years. Where does one get an opinion on this? How can one make an opinion on this? Simply stated, they shouldn’t, and should wait for the finished product.

In conclusion, there’s a fine line between recognizing a real issue (such as Duke Nukem as mentioned above) and reacting to it as it is universally wrong, finding an issue that there is a controversy over and having people agree/disagree over (such as the current political state), and then having people who mad-dog attack something without evidence or proper knowledge to make a case over. My message to the larger community? You have a brain, gents. Do not attack something without thinking, without knowing the absolute truth behind it. In a game it can get you killed. In reality, it could make you a fool, or worse, one of the people we always shun-the ones who have dated back to the dark ages, with their pointing fingers and lit torches ready to set the world on fire.

Kevin

On July 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm

As a conservative, I say “hahalol” at people who are complaining. Trust me when I say a lot of games have been setup with bashing a lot of cliches about conservatives. I still enjoy them.

But on a more serious note……

To add a bit to the authors point, many of us say video games are “art.” Well, art sometimes takes on controversial issues. If a fatcat banker is a suitable villian, why not a populist who manipulates the feelings of the downtrodden for his own personal gain?

We’ve known for some time now that Bain in Dark Knight Rises basically portrays himself as representing the “99%” but its obvious the guy is just a dangerous sociopath. I mean cmon, its a masked man!

I’d be far more worried about the character being far too one-dimensional as it is with most COD games. Sure, the broad storyline is “bold”, but the ins and outs are typically yawners. Then again, this is an FPS for crying out loud.

idealrobot

On July 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm

@ Daniel O’Dette

The notion that such a character could exist and manipulate the masses is not unprecedented whatsoever, as you and I both know that there are many ways that we are manipulated each day, from the ad’s we come across, to what our friends are talking about. In fact there are a great deal of stories, where people are manipulated into doing bad things, Star Wars with it’s Darth Vader makes a great deal of sense. Only, look at Darth Vader, a singular man with great potential and noble intentions, who turns to the wrong path to solve his problems. Anyone can relate to that, because even though they aren’t Darth Vader, they understand what it’s like to make a mistake and what might lead up to that. Or take the film Seven, and it’s villain John Doe. You know nothing at all about him, but he has a singular purpose in mind in which you certainly can understand, even if you don’t agree with it. How these characters are pointed, not only helps to craft the great stories they are involved in, but they allow a person to look into such aspects of themselves, and either scrutinize or empathize with what’s being presented to them.

You mentioned sociopaths, and since we’re talking about stories, let’s examine the film Birth of a Nation shall we? You have an honorable, good hearted fellow by the name of Ben Cameron, who is an unsung hero in the Civil War. He escapes death, only to discover that in losing the war that the opposing force has taken the country overnight, and it’s much worse than he ever imagined. His people are overrun, and have to suffer under the heel of the victors, whom are immensely cruel. In order to combat this, he becomes an avenging ghost, to save his people of his nation from the tyranny forced upon them. I won’t go into details, as you can wiki them just as easy, but that’s a story as relocatable as any without them. Look at where the story itself is pointed though. What is being said? How is this character framed? Even the Joker in Dark Knight (you could even say he’s not sociopathic), helps to frame a much larger topic being discussed throughout the film. To create a character, which doesn’t even begin to try and mask itself as far as what it relates to, and cast that character in a villainous role, is a pointed commentary on everything involved with that character. This is a conclusion that can be drawn. If this character didn’t have that association, or if there was nothing to say about whatever he was representing, it wouldn’t be involved in such a story. It’s picking a side to argue on, and you don’t argue with what you agree with do you?

jonothanster

On July 11, 2012 at 7:31 pm

The Occupy Wall Street movements have often been criticized as ‘aimless’ as there is no leadership and no real goal the protesters are trying to reach. Saying this as a liberal who wholeheartedly agrees with the attitude of the protesters, I hope (and sort of assume) the message of both the new COD and The Dark Knight Rises movie is not ‘all protesters are dangerous and shouldn’t complain about the widening wealth gap’ but instead is more of a warning against allowing idealism to turn into something violent. However, as this is a COD game, the vast majority of people won’t even pay attention to the plot anyways.

David

On July 11, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Hmmm. Vast numbers of games these days (and for that matter, nearly every movie out of Hollywood) is premised on the Bad Guys turning out to be pale males of a military, quasi-military (intel or cointel), or corporate nature. Indeed, in Hollywood it’s practically verboten to have Arabs as Bad Guys (the movie version of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears changed the original Arab terrorists into middle-aged corporate Eurotrash).

Now we have a Bad Guy who cynically manipulates the so-called 99-percent (and their iPads) and that’s supposed to be controversial? Oh, brother.

idealrobot

On July 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm

@ Daniel O’Dette

While I understand what you’re saying, I think that you fail to grasp the concept of how characters shape a story, and the idea of thematics. When you’re telling a story, there’s usually an overarching theme, or a focus in which the story expounds upon. Star Wars is anti fascist/totalitarianism, so they have Darth Vader, a true believer of the regime as it’s villain. Seven is focused on apathy, so it has John Doe, whom while negative frames the picture of how apathy is bad. The list goes on, but a villain is always the closest attached character to the theme in question, as it frames the entirety of the story. So if you have a villain attached to something like Occupy, or the 99%, the story’s theme is going to focus on a negatives of such a movement. Making the statement that “those people didn’t know” is akin to Nazi’s apologizing for the Holocaust, but when you say Nazi, you have a direct and negative association.

That’s how you can draw a conclusion about the trailer.

While I do think it’s important to discuss politics, I’m not going to beat anyone over the head with what I believe, but even outside of that, I’ve got no problem saying that I don’t think this game is cool. Deus Ex and MGS are more up my alley for this sort of thing anyway, but I’m that kind of gamer. I’m not a representative of any group of people, I’m an individual with my own stance and problems. If people agree with me, that’s great. If not, that’s cool too, but I’m not going to just shut up if I think something is wrong. Talking about it isn’t going to get anyone killed bro :)

Like Sterling said, something like this will help to further the discussion in games, beyond frame rates and replay value, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully we’ll get to a point one day when we can talk about it without pointing fingers with our torches, though I think you need to rephrase that with “when you argue” because that’s what people do in these situations today. Regardless, we’ve made our statements, lets let the public decide from here on, shall we?

Brian

On July 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Why was there no outrage when the Citizen’s United supreme court decision was portrayed as part of a Templar conspiracy in the Assassin’s Creed series?

idealrobot

On July 12, 2012 at 2:36 am

@ Daniel O’Dette

While I understand what you’re saying, I think that you fail to grasp the concept of how characters shape a story, and the idea of thematics. When you’re telling a story, there’s usually an overarching theme, or a focus in which the story expounds upon. Star Wars is anti fascist/totalitarianism, so they have Darth Vader, a true believer of the regime as it’s villain. Seven is focused on apathy, so it has John Doe, whom while negative frames the picture of how apathy is bad. The list goes on, but a villain is always the closest attached character to the theme in question, as it frames the entirety of the story. So if you have a villain attached to something like Occupy, or the 99%, the story’s theme is going to focus on a negatives of such a movement. Making the statement that “those people didn’t know” is akin to Nazi’s apologizing for the Holocaust, but when you say Nazi, you have a direct and negative association.

That’s how you can draw a conclusion about the trailer.

While I do think it’s important to discuss politics, I’m not going to beat anyone over the head with what I believe, but even outside of that, I’ve got no problem saying that I don’t think this game is cool. Deus Ex and MGS are more up my alley for this sort of thing. I’m not a representative of any group of people, I’m an individual. If people agree with me, that’s great. If not, that’s cool too, but I’m not going to just shut up if I think something is amiss. Talking about it isn’t going to get anyone killed bro :)

Like Sterling said, something like this will help to further the discussion in games, beyond frame rates and DLC, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully we’ll get to a point one day when we can talk about it without pointing fingers with our torches, though I think you need to rephrase that with “when you argue” because that’s what people do in these situations today. Regardless, we’ve made our statements, lets let the public decide from here on, shall we?

Nulltron

On July 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Activision has taken sides with the %1. What is principally wrong with that? Nothing. Why do people expect the guy who brings them entertainment should also be similarly inclined politically? Activision has every right to be a hard core; to the point of fascism, supporter of the %1.

Yet, that argument does not deprive other people of the right to call for the boycott of the game, or hate the game or pointing out its political failures. In fact boycotting the game is the most beautiful thing that can come out of the endeavors of Activison towards fostering debate (if that is what they wanted to do in the first place. Which makes a fool out of everyone that can believe that).

However, no one should expect a site about video games to call for a boycott of a game. Can anyone remember a single game where a gaming site has called for its boycott? The may rate is low, but still ask their readers to try it out for themselves and see firsthand how awful the game is.